Since she released her debut album, Ease My Mind, back in 2014, Michaela Anne has been winning critical acclaim for her old-school, straightforward approach to songwriting.
The album was named among the Top 10 of the year by the Village Voice, whilst the follow-up, Bright Lights And The Fame, included appearances by Rodney Crowell and saw Michaela’s songs appear on the HBO series Divorce and on high profile Spotify playlists. Her latest album, Desert Dove – her first for Yep Roc Records – was released earlier this month and was produced by Sam Outlaw and Kelly Winrich.
I recently spoke to Michaela about Desert Dove, her experience working with Sam, her songwriting process and her experience of touring and performing in the UK. Read on to find out more…
You’ve just released your new album Desert Dove – can you tell us more about that?
Yeah, it just came out on Yep Roc, and I’m really excited and proud of it. It’s been a couple of years in the making. I think I started working on it in 2018, so maybe a year [laughs]. But it was produced by Sam Outlaw and Kelly Winrich, he’s from a great band Delta Spirits. It’s a collection of songs that I feel are really personal, that hopefully connect to a lot of people. I’m really excited about it.
What were the main influences and inspirations for you with this record?
Oh, probably life itself. I think it’s always funny to me that we culturally put so much emphasis on the art of younger people, because as I age I look back on the stuff I was making when I was way younger and I’m like, ‘I had no idea!’ [laughs] Not that I have any idea now but you live so much more and you have complicated relationships and your perspectives change. I think that this record is really about me coming to terms with a lot of that. I think I was a bit more self-righteous in earlier years, and I’ve gone through the past few years where everything feels a bit more grey and complicated and there is no black or white, right or wrong. And I think a lot of these songs explore that. Just the many dimensions of every experience, every relationship. It’s hard to just put things cleanly in a box.
Has your writing process on this record changed compared to your previous albums?
It’s pretty similar. I have a mixed collection on this record of songs I wrote completely alone and then songs that were co-written with other people. I wrote like 20-something songs and then went through them all with Sam, and it was the first time that I let a producer have some input. So he has some credits on different songs that after I wrote it he was like, ‘what if you changed this word, or what if you did this?’ So that was a new experience. I’ve never let myself have an editor in a sense. There’s songs that both of our names on that I wrote and then he went back and made suggestions.
So that is a challenge, to be that vulnerable and letting someone examine something. I think in the past I was like, ‘no, I wrote this song, it’s done, it’s not up for discussion’ [laughs]. And there definitely were some songs on the record where I still had that stance. But I think that for me was a sign of growth, of being open to more collaboration in areas that I had once had a bad experience in. Because I think as a whole, a piece of a music, a record, a song, sometimes it can really benefit from a generous, open spirit of collaboration.
You’ve recorded a duet with Sam Outlaw in the past – what was he like to work with as a producer?
He’s a really dedicated, focused producer. He keeps the train moving, very organised and on top of everything. So the pairing with him and Kelly was really great, because Kelly was the engineer and played a bunch of instruments and brought in more of the sonic qualities of the record that were a little more expansive. So it was really great. It’s hard for me to imagine what the record would be like with just one or the other producing it, so it was a really great experience to have a team.
You’ve mentioned the collaborative elements of writing this record. Is there anyone you’d like to work with in future? Or anyone you’ve particular enjoyed working with in the past?
Yeah, there’s a lot of heroes that any opportunity to work with them, to kind of just witness how they work, would be incredible to me. So Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt – the classics, in my mind. And for the younger generation, I’m a huge fan of Rayland Baxter and War On Drugs. That would be a dream collaboration for me.
Were there any songs on Desert Dove that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?
Desert Dove was a song that just came to me. That was probably the easiest to write. There weren’t any edits on that one. It just kind of appeared. I literally opened my mouth one day and started singing it. So that song I feel like I can’t take much credit for because I don’t feel like I worked for it [laughs]. In the sense that I wasn’t labouring over it. It came fully formed, which is amazing.
Other songs that were a little harder – Run Away With Me took some time. That took several months I think, from start to finish. If I Wanted Your Opinion was a song that I wrote with my friend Mary Bragg and I think we got together three different times at different stages. I have past notebooks of what it looked like in the middle stage and it was drastically different than what we ended up with. So that was a song that really took some time because we were really concerned about what we were trying to say and how to say it. So that was a more difficult song, for sure.
You recorded the album in California. Did being in that environment have any influence on the sound of the record or your approach to it?
Definitely. I think it kind of created this bubble or this world for the record that I personally – I don’t know if it’s just because I experienced it, but I think you can hear that on the record. I went out there for three weeks and I didn’t go anywhere else in that time. Maybe I’d go to a restaurant or a coffee shop or something, but every day it was in the studio all day. It was a beautiful setting, it was right on the beach so that was inspiring and made me feel very grateful and present. So that was all really good.
And I do love living in Nashville and I love having so many friends who are all doing this same kind of career path. My closest friends are all singer-songwriters. And that feels great that you belong in this community and that they can relate, versus some family members and close friends who are very far removed from the music business and don’t understand or relate to my world. But at the same time I think some distance can be really helpful for creativity, that you don’t have to go down the rabbit hole of ‘well everyone around me is doing this and everyone’s so good, so why do I need this distance from it? Why isn’t anything I do of value?’ That’s a tricky thing and even the healthiest of minds can go there sometimes. So kind of removing all of that, I think was really helpful and just getting to a space where the only thing on my mind was making that music.
Has there been anything that’s surprised you about people’s response to the album so far?
Yeah, it’s been really positive. And you know, I put out a couple of records in the past but this is my first time on Yep Roc, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was trying to manage my expectations and it’s been really, really positive – just really nice to see people writing about it and sending me messages that they’re listening to it. There’s a lot of music coming out, especially right now, so it’s really humbling and exciting to see that people are connecting to it and giving it the time. Because it takes time to listen to a record! [laughs]
You played your first UK headline show in May – how was that?
That was so much fun. I’ve opened three shows in London in the past couple of years and I’ve toured in the UK a little bit opening for people, but I’ve never done my own show. I’ve toured in the US and that feels like a little bit less on the line. Every time you go on tour and play shows it’s a gamble. You’re like, ‘I don’t think anybody’s gonna come’ and believe me, I have been so pleasantly surprised that a lot of people showed up on nights when you’re like, ‘nobody’s here!’ [laughs]
So to fly across the ocean, that feels even scarier, and I was really pleasantly surprised that so many people came to hear my songs and see who I was and that was just the best. I personally find the UK incredibly warm and kind. There’s a growing Americana scene in the UK that I think is just awesome and makes me really excited to come back.
What have you learned from touring and being on the road?
A lot! [laughs] You know, being on tour is a big challenge, and staying healthy – mentally, emotionally and physically. Every day is a wide range of emotions. A friend recently said it best – she’s been on the road for a long time this year and just really tired. She played two sets in one day at a festival and the first set she was in tears and determined that she hated music, and then the next set she was so elated and blissful and grateful to be there loving music. So it’s a rollercoaster. You’re changing, you’re never in one place more than a day, and I’ve learned the value in really taking care of yourself.
Because you think early on, ‘oh this is an escape, this isn’t real life’. So when you’re spending so much time on the road and keep calling it not real life, but you spend more time on the road than you do on your real life at home, you can’t really differentiate. So the importance of just staying grounded, not letting any high or low affect you too much. Even if you have a great show, keeping a balanced approach. If you have a bad show, knowing that’s not the end of the world and not the last show you’re ever going to play. I haven’t conquered it [laughs]. I’m still working on it.
What’s the one song you wish you’d written?
I’ve been saying Me And Willie, which is a song recorded by Emmylou Harris and written by Laurie Hyde-Smith. It’s one of those songs that just feels like a movie, and I love it so much. So I wish I had written that one.
What do the next few months look like for you? Is the record the main focus at the moment?
Yeah, that kind of takes over your life, in a really good way. So I’ll be touring for all of October and have a few more things til the end of the year, and then I’ll start back in 2020.
And do you have any plans to come back to the UK any time soon?
Yes. I can’t say when yet, but definitely we’ll be coming back early next year.
Michaela Anne’s latest album, Desert Dove, is out now on Yep Roc Records.